The early 1990s was a time in South Africa that the world knew to be the end of the iniquitous apartheid era and the start of what most believed to be the birth of the “rainbow nation”.
Little has been reported or documented about what actually happened between 1990 and 1994, let alone the amount of “invisible deaths” that took place in what most believed to be a “civil war”, which was fuelled and backed by a sinister third force.
What Philippa Garson does in her book, Undeniable: Memoir of a Covert War, is unbelievable. Garson tells the story of how she covered that “civil war” as a young white liberal junior reporter at the Weekly Mail newspaper (now Mail & Guardian). Garson sketches the picture of the tumultuous period in our history and how she, along with her colleagues, such as Mondli Makhanya, Kevin Carter, Eddie Koch, and editor Anton Harber, were intent on exposing the third force.
When I saw the book title and read the synopsis, I thought this was yet another apartheid angled book, that tells the tale of someone else’s experiences either via a third party or in the first person.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by how Garson’s well-versed writing took me on a journey of note, one that not only captures and preserves the memory of those who are seemingly forgotten in our mainstream media annals but that speaks to the title of the book. It’s an unforgettable memoir, one that every South African should read.
The level of sophistication behind aspects of this war is portrayed by Garson, and aptly so. The reader should and can only see that there has been a third force behind all of this. This was a journey that I never thought would have been possible, given my presumptive perspective of the book, before reading the first chapter. Garson’s explanation and use of imagination and adjectives will give you the sense that you are right there with her and her colleagues while they cover the so-called civil war.
From the first chapter, Garson gives the reader the insight needed to understand why certain things later in the book are the way that they are. Her relationship with Clyde, her coloured boyfriend at the time, was maybe at first an act of rebellion by, as she coins it, a liberal leftie. The incident right at the beginning of the book where Garson, Clyde, and a black friend of Clyde’s head over to a spot for breakfast after a night out, a regular occurrence for their liberal weed-smoking and whiskey drinking evenings, was an eye-opener for Garson.
At this specific event, Clyde and his friend, more so his friend, are very vocal about the government and the manner in which the white regime is oppressing the majority of the population. This did little to impress the adjacent not-so-coloured table of burly men, the latter who followed Clyde and friend to the bathroom, and what ensued, according to Garson, gave her insight into what the “other” races have to go through on a daily basis: they were basically attacked for being a certain skin colour.
What really stands out for me is how Garson built up her network of contacts. This, despite there being a distinctive language barrier in most cases. She powered through and soldiered through to get the story and make sure her readers would get the full story from within.
Garson’s way of describing the milieu when meeting with her contacts is done with so much precision and takes the reader on an imaginative journey that not many writers can do.
It was as if I was there with Garson and the likes of Mondli Makhanya while covering the stories during that period.
Many writers fail to captivate the reader with first-hand experiences, even in cases where the writer is telling the story in the first person.
The manner in which Garson depicts the tale is vivid and fresh. It is as if one can smell the dust, hear the screams and howls from within the townships. As if you walked and crouched with Garson on one of her many signature excursions into the heart of one of South Africa’s most tumultuous times – the untold civil war.